The Ivy House pub, based in the suburban Nunhead area of south-east London, possess a proudly different origin story to most boozers.
Back in 2013, it became the city's first "community pub", after a protracted battle to save the building from the whims of housing developers. Since then, it's remained a beacon for an alternative ownership model, with 370 shareholders and a management committee (originally comprised of eight, though now up to 11 members as of last year) in lieu of unaccountable and opaque corporate structures, plus a staff paid the London Living Wage of £10.20/hour.
However, that hasn't led to the evaporation of workplace struggles and disputes. As recent events have made clear, reality often tends to be messier than advertised.
Last Tuesday, four members of staff were abruptly sacked without a reason being given, in an email from the management committee to acting general manager Conrad Luis.
This isn't the first case of staff at the pub clubbing together for change. Back in 2016, there were plans in place to unionise around the issue of zero-hour contracts, the use of which hardly seems to chime with the pub's community ethos, even if "flexibility" is factored in as justification. But high staff turnover – a regular fact of life in the hospitality industry – meant it proved difficult to hit the 50 percent + 1 rule (the proportion of the workforce that needs to demand union recognition for employers to be legally obliged to grant it).
After several days of chaos following the email, the staff decided to take emergency action last Sunday morning to address the issue directly with a wildcat strike. The pub was then shut on Sunday, with staff and supporters contributing to the picket outside. Many shareholders and members of the local community joined in, and there was even a delegation of Swedish trade unionists.
Following various rounds of talks between management and staff, with support and advice from the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers' Union (BFAWU), an agreement was reached on Tuesday evening after a full second day of picketing on Monday, in which the staff's demands were met. Firstly, to reinstate the sacked staff and continue to pay them while a proper investigation was conducted (with back pay), plus agreeing to abolish zero-hours contracts and transfer all staff to permanent contracts and the right to full union recognition rights.
I made my way up to the pub after the settlement was announced to talk with an exhausted but elated Conrad, who stressed both the collective effort, and the gratitude he and the other staff feel for the depth of community and shareholder support.
"It's important that we make a stand against zero-hour [contracts]. This pub should be a flagship, which it is," he said, as we talked over a half pint. Part of the issue was transparency, with the strikers holding their meetings in public, encouraging discussion and debate, while the committee held theirs inside the pub, away from both shareholders and staff. It was fractious at points, he said, with the police called on Conrad after he refused to hand over the keys to the pub.
"But we didn't change what we asked for, at any point. By the end of Sunday, tensions were high, everyone was knackered, no one had eaten. The committee had been woken up at 9AM, they weren't expecting it. We were close to a deal, but there were just a few details that weren't quite there," he tells me.
It's also crucial, he adds, to repair the broken relationship between the committee and the staff after the events of the last week. After all, they all want to make the pub better, with its potential to point to a different model and way of doing things. It isn’t often that industrial action achieves every demand, and the negotiations also relied on the committee showing a degree of flexibility and admitting some culpability. The pub have since posted on Facebook, confirming their commitment to moving forward and honouring the agreement, "renewing a relationship based on mutual respect in which all parties have the best interests of The Ivy House at heart".
Aside from that, it’s about setting a different kind of example. One that shows it is possible for direct action to effect tangible improvements. The actions of a few bar staff in south London could offer some hope to other hospitality workers, as today TGI Fridays, Wetherspoons, McDonald's and others face strike action from disgruntled employees. Ivy House workers are heading down to lend their support. Conrad says: "We knew the context of [the strike on] Thursday. It definitely inspired us, that this is something worth fighting for."